Sayed Haider Raza had a long and amorous correspondence with French artist Janine Mongillat between the years 1953 and 1954, until he proposed to her, and they finally moved in together. Surely there is a veritable biography or two out about his life, and a couple more in the offing. One hopes the readers treat this book as a complement to them, but also as an independent read to learn about his most personal ideas on romance, his innermost life that reveals the key and clue to his art and all that surrounds it, all that is interminably interlinked to it.
As a translator, I’d had to to make certain choices in the original draft, such as letting the mistakes Raza made remain in the original text, I chose not to correct the entire draft as it gives us a glimpse into two important things: his phonetic proficiency in French (that he was using it more as a language of utility than a language for poetic expression, but eventually came to using it for everything), and the steady improvement we see in his diction across the text, exposing the ennobling capacity of love.
The letters betray an entire range of feelings he felt for Janine as a man in his prime, and his feelings were ample, not just toward her beauty, but also her “divinity”, her intelligence, for the necessity of her presence, as he put in several of his letters. He needed her to work. To paint. “To breathe”. The whole of the text is a pivotal template of a masculinity that is noble, that is beautiful. That’s the point of this effort. “I need to convince you that there are men on this earth who can love and are worthy of it too.”
From pop culture to philosophy, from feminism to poetry, the question that always hangs unresolved, is whether there really is a difference between a female and male voice in writing. Surely, in the case of literature and in various other social sciences with regard to shifting subjective positions, it becomes harder to probe (and we might be closer to an answer in our theoretical spaces than we were twenty years ago), but here, as we have it, is a range of writing that gives us an actual glimpse into the nature of Raza’s artistic life as it stood, entwined with his deeply personal questions about love, belonging, generosity and being. Perhaps the “centre of gravity” he’s exploring in one of the letters here offers us as incipient form of Raza’s greater philosophy that emerges later vis-a-vis the bindu. (He was still doing cityscapes at the time)
How do we express love in our day? To what extent does it teach us? What does it really teach us in its pursuit? To what degree do we, as a generation, bear proximity with our innate ability towards self mastery? All these questions are worth exploring for the reasons that cultural memory is collective memory of a sort, we have forgotten (and I say that hesitantly, but know it to be more true than not) that seduction is a skill which is a great joy for both parties when deployed with a deft hand, that courtship is a necessary and important method to affirm consent, and without enthusiastic consent, there is no society possible that isn’t rife with gendered violence.
Not to sound pedantic, but the larger idea here, in putting such a book out, is that we can learn to love healthily, that it is possible without pernicious power imbalances in relationships, that we can unlearn our paranoias, apprehensions, we can undo all the ills we inherit without wanting to, that all it takes is some skill at persuasion and natural, enormous reserves of feeling, and that is the work of Raza’s writing in these letters.
Through the story in Raza’s words, we learn in the subtext that fear is natural, but it’s also useful, it protects you from yourself. That love is a possibly rational thing, more than light switches and binary numbers, and in this world with such flagrant sexist violence, what is ultimately and fundamentally important is having viable and visible examples of healthy masculinity (and knowing the difference between that and toxic masculinity).
We always talk about power structures and how they mediate all our impulses, there remains the necessity for a space to facilitate conversation on desire outside our academic and theoretical spaces Not that they don’t exist, but not proactively, with a committed engagement, with self appointed agents of change furthering the cause and benefits of love. The intention of publishing such a project is to arrive at a full and real exchange, to understand desire as primal, to see articulate expression as self perfection.
The social media space continuously shapes our ideas of our personal unions, makes grave alterations in our courtship rituals, as they have been understood historically. The point being, I hope this book, apart from being an example of beauty and love, a collectors tome, a space of comfort and hope also reaches all the wrong people. It is those that need things like this the most, in the end.
To Sing Your Divinity
Paris, June 15th, 1953
To sing your divinity or that of nature, one must be a poet.
I’m too satisfied with my own happiness. I do not want happiness to be there in these letters. I want to produce an accurate picture of my thoughts and feelings each time.
I can’t write now. Yes, I have seen the fields bathed in the whiteness of dawn, the sun-filled gardens, the blue lakes. Before (this), I felt I could die of too much happiness. Now, I live too much because of it. This is already (quite) big. Its expression diminishes the intensity.
The walls around me are my own creation. They are always there. Though, I take liberties at my own discretion. I hope I can always see clearly, and be aware of what I am doing
I repeat for you, what you wrote to me: “You must penetrate the centre of your gravity, of your silence. It must be to find what you need ... “
The Earth Shaking
July 11, 1954
Preserve my letters.
What is said between the various sensations is unreasonable. All that is spontaneous is lost in the air. The acts, the facts, all the history and the stories (are lost) to a thousand interpretations. Memories belong to an obscure past. These letters are an unchangeable reality that will last. Preserve them.
I’m in. I commit myself by my letters.
And I’m telling you. Because I absolutely need your trust. I need to convince you that there are men on this earth who can love and are worthy of it too.
I need to make you believe that all true love is exclusive, that I beckon only one person, and that person is you. May god grant me the power to say “I love you” as it has never been said.
In a few hours I’ll be next to you. Know that I’ve never had such ardour. You know the absurdity of my circumstances, and that if I come, it’s because my whole being is concentrated on you. To reach it prevents my breathing, I need to live.
I come in two days, but from now on, through this letter, I propose my life to you and I ask for your hand (in marriage).
I’ve known you for two years. I wanted you to escape, with all my strength, as much as you did. I had a menacing past. I was lonely, bitter, aware of my circumstances. I did not want to cast a shadow in your path. Months can be spent (like this).
To recount: I saw you turn into a deity. I felt you fill this abyss of my heart. And now I find you scattered in every fibre and every moment.
I am not coming to spend ten days to holiday in Menton. I am coming to establish an affair for all my life, to prove to you my indispensability. Our struggle will be great. You know everything. But with you, I will know how to remove every obstacle. My struggle will have to become yours, my life will hold it, (it will be) ours. It will be necessary that you wish for the same harmony as I do, and the power that we create together will know how to overcome everything.
I’m coming to pick you up in my arms. I’m coming over to tell you that “I love you”, as it never has been told. I’m coming to soak my lips in yours. I’m coming to breathe. I already feel the earth trembling, the sky waiting.
I sent you an express letter yesterday. Did you receive (it) today? I almost called you this morning.
Tomorrow, I hope to receive your letter and after tomorrow I arrive at Menton.
I thank Marie very much for her understanding and help. It’s a friendship to be proud of. I would also love for Abdoulla to be there. Still, I hope that my presence will not cause too many problems*. My only reason for being down there is that I cannot wait for you here, in Paris, anymore.
About the room; the price is not so important any longer. It must be free now. So, do as you think best.
Kisses, see you soon.
Excerpted with permission from a book to be published in February, 2020, by Art Vadehra Press.